What would I really like to see in the next pro camera from Olympus?

     Paris Fashion Shows, 1995.  Louvre Carrousel.  Atsuro Tamaya Show.  Contax Camera.     135mm lens.  Manual focus.  Manual exposure.  Manual frame advance. ©Kirk Tuck

My friend and fellow photographer, Bill Beebe, recently sent me a short article outlining what he'd like to see in the next generation of Olympus digital cameras.  It's a solid bit of thinking and you can read it here:   http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2010/02/olympus-e-series-dslr-wishlist.html  That started me thinking about what I'd like to see from Olympus if and when they revise the e3 and come out with a new camera aimed at professional and advanced non-professional photographers.

My knee jerk reaction was the thought that I already had everything I wanted in a camera but I didn't think that would make a very compelling blog so I went out for nice, Sunday walk with my wife and pondered the question.  And I came to the conclusion that I'd be happy with two totally different pathways from Olympus.

The first path would be what I describe in the caption above.  A camera that has a minimum of controls and complexity.  A huge finder that is optimized for manually focusing lenses. A mode dial with two settings:  Manual and Aperture Priority.  A basic, but huge center AF sensor that could AF in the dead of a moonless night.  And the only file type would the .DNG.   No major choices would be made in camera.  No jpegs.  No art filters.  No screen overlays.  The camera would be as straightforward as an older Porsche 911.  Pre-turbo, pre-air conditioning, and certainly pre-automatic transmission.

Can you imagine how fun a camera like that would be?  No fiddling and twiddling when you should be shooting and schmoozing.  It would work out well.  Only tightly wound sports photographers need 10 frames per second and only neophytes need programmed exposure.  Only bored people really need art filters.   And your client can always wait a few moments for the files to be rendered into jpegs via a good and simple converter.  But in many, many ways a design like that would reduce the interface between the artist and the camera.  That's essentially the appeal of the Leica M cameras.  That was definitely the appeal of the Nikon F and the Nikon F2 and the Olympus OM-1.  Everything else you put on a camera is just sales bait.  Real photographers don't need that stuff.

The lack of both firmware and physical complexity yields a tool that is elegant and reliable.  No searching thru sub-menus to find out why the shutter won't release.  No time lost trying to change focusing spots.  Just an amazing and instant classic.

My one nod to contemporary features? The inclusion of Image Stabilization.  That's something that, once we have it, we can never live without.

Think this is nuts?  Have a pet "setting" that you just can't live without?  You might just need to practice and learn the nuts and bolts a bit better.  The above image was done "primitive" but it works as well as any AF super camera image would have worked.  I was shooting ISO 400 Agfapan at ISO 320.  The settings were probably f2.8 (wide open) and 1/125th of a second.  IS didn't exist back then.  And the model never stopped moving.  Back then we practiced focusing as a craft and an art and didn't run to our forums whining about front focus or back focus.  Front focus meant you tried to anticipate the movement but you were a little early.  Back focus meant you were a little late.  No IS meant you learned how to hold your camera still when you squeezed the shutter.  No auto exposure function meant you judged the light and locked in the exposures.  I know, I know,  I'm living in the past.  But if I was a pilot I'd still want to actually know how to fly that 747 just in case the computer decided to go south while the plane heads north.

So the first path is how I feel I want to go when I'm being all  rugged and self-reliant.  Kind of a  conservative "we don't need no government/camera company intrusion into our photo taking lives" take on photography.

When I get rational and accept that once automatic transmission is introduced people are going to be loathe to forgo the coffee and actually shift with that right hand, I have another vision of what camera manufacturers (and Olympus in particular) should do when designing cameras.  It's similar to what BMW found out in the 1990's.  Performance is great but what Americans really want is lots and lots of cup holders.  And a really good stereo.  And a smooth ride.  So much for designing performance tools.

In that vein I also have a vision for the perfect professional DSLR.

It starts with a super high quality EVF (electronic viewfinder) with zillions of pixels and no time lag.  Why? Because you'll be able to previsualize every effect and setting you make to the image before you even click the shutter.  Change the color balance?  You'll see it in the finder.  What to know how hot the exposure is?  You can see the histogram in the view finder without taking your eye away.  It's like magic.  It works well on the EP-2.  Make it two generations and more premium processing better and I guarantee you that no one who looks through the finder will ever go back to the compromise that is the Optical viewfinder.  Really.

All those people who swear they'll never buy a camera with an EVF will be throwing credit cards at the company that does this first and best.  No doubts.  I'd stake my (post 2009) 401k on it.

Next up?  A sensor that does 3200 ISO with little to no noise and also yields a big ass dynamic range.  Me?  I'll take dynamic range over ISO every day of the week.  I don't really care about the noise in any of the cameras currently on the market but......I've used several medium format cameras and a Fuji S5 and I've seen how good the dynamic range can be.  That's what I want in my camera.  Screw HDR.  If you have 12 stop range in your base exposure you've already got HDR without the seat time that pushes your evolution into nerdism and makes your thighs and belly all jiggly.  With a small sensor you're going to have to make compromises somewhere but D-range isn't the place to do it.

On my next flagship Olympus I want something that they already have figured out.  I want the ability to fine tune focus on my lenses.  They've implemented this perfectly on the e30.  No reason they can't do it on the eX.

Faster frame rates?  Nope.  I don't need em and most likely neither do you.  A slower frame rate means a shutter that last longer and is more reliable.  I'll take that.  I do want variable aspect ratios.  I have that in my EP-2 and it's changed my life for the better by giving me back the right to do square images.  And I can see them in the EVF.  No compromises necessary.

I would like to see all the camera manufacturers adopt the .dng files as the standard raw format.  Every new camera could be used in raw the day it's delivered in the elite programs.  Capture One.  ACR.  Lightroom.  Not some software afterthought.  Hey camera companies!  Be brave.  Open up that standard.  Help you customers get the most out of your cameras and they may love you better.  The only thing you have to lose is a few incremental sales of some really crappy software that you wouldn't wish on your mother.  And if the standard was truly opened the elite software programs would rush to optimize the hell out of it which would make your cameras look better and better.  All the raws are based on tiffs anyway.  Who do you think you are kidding?

Silent shutters.  Without a moving mirror (remember, we're going EVF) the only component that makes noise is the shutter and you could cut half the shutter noise by implementing a feature that Nikon first rolled out on the F4====silent.  Slow down the shutter charge and you'll eliminate a ton of noise.  Give us that option.  And with the 4:3rds cameras you have a natural advantage over FF cameras in the geometry and travel distance of the shutter curtains.  You made them quiet in the e1, you can do it again in the eX !!!!!!!!!!!  Nothing ruins the moment like a bingy-bangy shutter slap.  That's why I'm not shooting a D3 or a D700 right now.

Finally, if you are going to give me an EVF and no mirror you might as well really give some thought to the whole subject of video.  It's going to happen, big time, whether you like it or not.  We need full manual controls.  That includes shutter speeds, aperture, ISO and focus.  The EP2 is a great start but eventually those millions of people who want to start making fun videos will realize one very important thing.........It's the sound that really matters.  You have to give us manual control over microphone levels and you need to get real and give us a professional way to import the signal from a professional, external microphone or mixer.  You just have to.  No arguments.  You'll sell zillions more than Canon and Nikon if you just put two XLR connectors on the bottom of the optional (and highly profitable) accessory battery grip.  Make it easy for us to do great work and your cameras will look better and better.

No one really cares about price point if the product is superior.  If you build it right you can spend years dribbling down features to lower price point products.  Sub the XLR's for 3.5mm mini plugs in the next model down.  Give us back a legitimate reason for buying the flagship model.  Give us the right features.  Give us reliability and give us professional interfaces.  If we screw up the pan or the transition or miss the focusing point that's our problem.

There are a number of reasons why the 4:3rds sensor size is the optimum size for lens development and for video capture.  So far Olympus and Panasonic have stumbled and missed on making these arguments.  I don't care if a camera or lens is smaller or lighter than anyone else's.  I want to know that the sensor geometry makes it easier for the lens designer to design sharper, faster and better lenses and why.  I want to know why a FF sensor is a distant second to FT sensors because the 4:3rd sensors yield the optimum DOF for video and focus depth.

That's about it.  I still don't care about art filters or fast frame rates or "super lock on continuous sports focus."  That's not relevant to most shooters.  I want a camera that's good to hold and good to shoot.  Something like an Olympus e1 with the guts of an EP-2.  And a better, faster EVF.  Hit that and we're all done.  But really?  I'm happy as a clam with my e30 and e3 and so are my clients.  Want a wake up call?  Most of the documentation shots in my fourth book were done with a point and shoot camera.  No big, fast, angry camera needed.

With the world going to HD TV screens as their primary media everything over a certain file size is just  tail fins on a Cadillac.  Bicycles for fishes.

Stay tuned. It's getting fun out there as the economy recovers......


wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

What a cool article - thanks Kirk!

I really like your thoughts about simplicity. When I started as an amateur photographer some 30 or so years ago, I did it with a Canon A1 and just three lenses: 28mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4, and 135mm 2.8. That Canon was an incredible tool, but I always looked to the side onto friends who had Nikon FM or other more manual cameras. The saying at that time was: throw it into a pool, clean and dry it with a hairdryer, and then go on shooting. What could be more tempting than that?

Now, some 30 years later - with a big break in between - I use an Olympus E-520 with the two kit zooms, and also with an "old" OM Zuiko 1.8 50mm, which makes a really nice portrait lens for 4/3rds, if you can live with manual focusing.

I'm still an amateur photographer, and reading things like your article above is wonderful - so thanks again. I would sign each word would this be a petition.


Kurt Shoens said...

For dynamic range and low noise at high ISOs, I think you should have held onto that D700. The fine folks at dxomark say it has 12 stops of dynamic range and of course the clean high ISO files. At the time you switched to Olympus, you liked the rendering of skin tones better than on the Nikons. The DxO folks have a raw converter that, among other features, will convert a file "cross brand." You can download a trial version for free and no doubt have friends with D700s. I'd be interested to hear if a D700 file processed as if it were an Olympus E3 gives skin tones that you like.

Is 4:3 the ideal size for lens development? Leica M lenses are nice and they work with 35mm (which we used to think of as a small format).

4:3 vs. APS-C? Not much difference there for depth of field and lens design.

I do agree on the EVF comments though. I think they are the wave of the future. With no mirror, we'll have quieter operation and shorter flange distance (the Leica M advantage). You'd think the option of electronic shutter would be possible for environments where you need the quietest operation.

Oh and also I agree about DNG, although what's the big deal about new raw formats? The freebie program dcraw converts just about any manufacturer's raw files into TIFF and it's less than 9000 lines of code. If you're not used to thinking about source code sizes, 9000 lines is basically nothing.

And why oh why if Adobe makes the DNG converter can't Adobe programs universally read any format that their converter can handle? If you want to convert the raw files from your Canon G11, Photoshop CS3 (and earlier) can't do it directly. Craziness.

Noons said...

Couldn't agree more with the design and specs for the "ideal" cameras.
Olympus does that and I might indeed kick Nikon out, once and for all.

Gordon said...

HD is already moving to about 5x the current 1080p resolution so I don't really buy the 'nobody will need resolution in the future' argument. It is already here for professional displays, only a matter of time until it trickles down to the consumer level.

.dng is a nice idea too, but the last time I read the standard it was just defining the 'bag' that the data gets put in. There were plenty of provisions to put all sorts of encrypted and proprietary stuff in it. Everyone switches to .dng in camera, just means that the software writers will be able to find information they still can't use, that much faster. Good for Adobe and no one else really.

Anonymous said...

Many will likely prefer option two, and that seems to be where all camera makers are headed - but I wish one of those companies also followed the first path that you described above.

I recently put away my D300 and sold my overpriced $1800 Nikkor zooms, went back to shooting black and white film (using aperture priority or manual) on a tiny Nikon F80 with a couple of tiny, lightweight primes. For me it is a return to why I loved photography as a hobby for two decades: the pleasure of creating images. And I really don't need IS (or VR) shooting at f/1.8!

Thank you for a very enjoyable blog.

Joel said...

First off, thanks for writing such a great blog. I am only a hobbyist and I photograph mostly for travel, be it urban vacations or wilderness hikes, but I still find your insight and the amount of information you put here very helpful and insightful.

The most fun I ever had with a camera, *and* the most I've learned with a camera was with a totally manual Nikon FG with a 50mm 1.8f prime. You only had three things to think about, along with the occasional change of film (and thus ISO): shutter, aperture and focus. I loved the size, which is why I shy away from big SLR bodies even now. I try to use my Oly e620 in the same way with the addition of zooms (though my default is the 25mm pancake), and having to pay attention to white balance as part of the move up to digital. I hate to think about metering (though as a guide it's nice; even the FG had that), focus areas, multi-frame modes, etc., etc. It's too much to think about when you want to focus on what you're shooting and how you're framing it!

Anonymous said...

I would like to have EVF as an option. Like in the E-p2 and E-pl1. In that way people who like OVF can use the OVF.
Adding that accessory port(to which VF2 finder plugs in) of PEN cameras to regular 4/3 seems to be pretty easy and adds lot of value to 4/3 cameras.

Eric said...

I think you've described the camera I've always wanted...a digital Pentax LX. We must be in a huge minority if not a single manufacturer aside from Leica will attempt such a camera.

Pete Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. Once again I'm sitting here nodding my head while reading your thoughts.

Your first, minimalist option has the most appeal to me. I'm still shooting a trusty old E-1, using M and A mode. There is something very satisfying about the combination of using the basics with a tool that fits my hands very well. I doubt that Oly will build a pro camera like this (sealed, etc.) because it just isn't sexy, or techie enough.

I suspect the next Oly pro camera will be close to your second option. But I have my doubts that the EVF will be ready soon enough. Only time will tell...

Anonymous said...

It's ironic that the photo was taken with Contax equipment. The camera that you described as the "first path" sounds so much like the Contax model(s). The ST and RTS models were just as you described... mostly manual, extremely solidly built, and optics so solid (if you owned the right lenses) that not many other manufacturers could come close. I really miss that level of build quality and simplicity, and is the reason why I held on to Contax for so long, and why I waited to purchase an E3 with their best lenses (some of them). Shooting with the kind of camera that you described is such a joy, and it puts you in a 'zen' frame of mind when you have time.
Olympus could help us with the simplicity efforts if they would grant us a few fixed-focus, fast lenses. If they would come up this kind of camera, it might re-direct some photographers from the mind-set that they need to upgrade to the latest/greatest every 2 years. If I had a standard, basic, but exceptionally well built camera, I would be very satisfied, and would not be so anxious about when and if there will be an new Olympus E-x camera just around the corner!

Steve said...

Very nice article. I've been shooting with the Olympus 4/3 system for a few years now, and I love the system and the lenses. This is my wish list for the E3 successor:

- 12 to 15 Megapixel sensor

- Better high ISO sensitivity

- Better low light focusing

- Replace the xD card slot with an SD card slot, but keep the compact flash slot

- 1080p video with full manual control

- and, the pie in the sky... Just like Red, the ability to shoot video in 12 bit RAW.

- for even more pie in the sky... 2K video. Why not?

Anonymous said...

I agree with your wish for a stripped down, pro-level camera. Keep it weather-proof, and it would be a dream come true.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,

Why not both? To follow on your Porsche 911 analogy, why not a 911 turbo with all the bells and whistles for those who want it, and stripped out 2.7 RS for those who want it 'pure'?

Just as long as they don't make a cayenne...

Anonymous said...

I loved what you said about the basic camera. I too shot with Contax cameras and I too remember how simple generally meant better. Maybe it's time to get off the roller coaster and make things simple again.

Chris said...

I like a lot of what you wrote but would add that very fast C-AF is a very good thing for sports and wildlife. It just makes life easier and done right, helps get the camera out of the way and makes getting the picture easier, which is a good thing:)

kirk tuck said...

Chris, I'm betting you are right. I don't do that kinda work very often. I do photograph swimmers but they tend to swim in pretty straight lines and a very predictable.

kirk tuck said...

Steve, Here's my suggestion for memory cards. Bag the CF's altogether and go with two SDHC slots. Smaller, cheaper and just as good.

kirk tuck said...

Gordon, I get that people will need more than the 2 megapixels of res they need with 1080p right now but I think it tops out at around 10 megs for the forseeable future. Only the wealthiest of geeks will have higher res screens than that......

kirk tuck said...

Minimalist. Not just a book concept......

By the way, I'm trying to hit 20 reviews of my commercial photography handbook on Amazon. If you've read it and like it I'd appreciate a quick review. If you didn't like it you probably don't have time to spend...... :-)

Poagao said...

I agree, of course, as I'm sure most of your readers do. The problem is that the manufacturers aren't marketing to photographers; they are targeting parents who need a machine to capture their children playing.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I love your blog and thoughts.
Variant 1 I found really intriguing, then I thought, well it is Oly we are talking about. The camera you are describing was made by Epson under the name RD-1. The chances that we get something like this from Oly is ... ZERO.

I recently bought the E-P1 and like a lot about this camera. But they screwed with so many things, especially the manual focussing aid for MF lenses, and they won't fix this with firmware, because they are Oly. How many customers hate the dysfunctional design of focus assist, still they won't change it. Nough said.

The problem with this company is that they seem to be somehow unconfident in being visibly pro. By this I mean predictable product upgrades, professional lenses and useful firmware upgrades. Till now we don't have anything faster than 2.8 for m43 and 2.0 for 43 (but these are huge zooms). How long did some wait for the E-1 upgrade? How long will others wait for an E-3 upgrade. Instead we get yet another slew of consumer zooms. Are we pro? Not sure. Maybe. Maybe next year. Honestly, I have more confidence in Panasonic than Olympus. Or the newly emerged Noktor for that matter.

amc said...

I used the OM-4 & OM-3 for about 15 years. I've been using an E-1 for five years, hoping that Olympus will slap itself awake and make another uncompromising photographers tool, but without the technical limitations of the E-1. I've just about given up hope. It seems that Oly is run by accountants, not vision, these days. Everything is a compromise, whereas the best of the OMs were uncompromisingly spare. As Anon said above, the torch may have passed onto Panasonic. I picked up a GF1 the other day, and almost surrendered the credit card on the spot. But I'm waiting, hoping that Oly will unwrap a digital OM-3/4 and a tidy little selection of fast primes.

But I'm not waiting too much longer.

Aoshi said...

Been with my E-500 for the last two years since catching the bug from my cousin and loving every minute of it. Compared to most of the replies here, I'm a relative newbie to 4/3.

I like what you've said Kirk, but what I'd like to see are...

1. Tighter ISO control. I've done away with ISO3200 at 200mm on the E-3 and 50-200 f2.8-3.5 and while it's not "too bad" it's not that good that you'd use it all the time either.

2. Better AF capability. Especially under low-light conditions. It's frustrating to say the least, on an E-500.

3. Nice-big-viewfinder. I'm sure you're familiar with the tunnel-vision in the E-500 viewfinder.

4. Drop the art-filters and HD recording.

Personally, I'm sort of an in-between when it comes to the latest tech they're stuffing into DSLRs nowadays. I want it old-school(manual modes) but with enough tech that I'm not going to get angry and shake my fist at things that would clutter the camera. Which I've done more than a couple of times at a friend's Nikon D3s.

Most of the time I'm shooting in M or A anyway so art-filters and Scene Mode don't do much for me.

4. Drop the xD slot for SDHC. Keep the CF slot. I quite like the CF card format they're using and I see no reason for them to change.

I think that's it for now.

Anonymous said...

Agree 100% with option 1. I was excited when Cosina Voigtlander announced it is developing a micro4/3 lens line and their opening entry into the arena is a 25mm f/0.95! Stephen Gandy at CameraQuest even hints there may be more than lenses coming. I emailed Stephen with my wishlist for a rangefinder m43 and it's almost exactly like yours. I wanted an optical viewfinder with a histogram projected into it, but EVF all the way makes more sense (bigger and more pixels the better), especially since the CV lenses will be all-manual and thus have no way of sending distance info to the camera. M,A mode only - check. Sensor-based IS - check (meaning Olympus supplies the sensor assembly). Differences: I'd like an all-electronic (global) shutter for completely silent operation (my D700 has turned heads at the wrong moment too many times); high speed continuous shutter for bracketing (for the usual reasons plus HDR) and iffy situations (card space is cheap); solid metal frame construction and weathersealing.

Don't know if Epson wants to have another go, but Mr. Kobayashi at Cosina may be willing to give it a try. If anyone knows him let him know what we want. Let Oly and Panny know too, but I think we're outnumbered 1,000 to 1 by folks who want all the bells and whistles.